Callisto Stone looked down at the phone humming in her hand. The number on the screen was unfamiliar, but a heavy stone still sat in the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t until she pressed the green answer button and held the device to her ear that she realized why.
“Callie,” Morgan Moreno’s smooth voice greeted her.
Before he could say anything more, she hung up and chucked her phone back into her backpack. There was no way she was going to let that man back into her life.
Almost immediately, the phone vibrated again. The beast inside her pushed her hands back toward the bag, toward the phone. Callie caught herself and cursed at the bear. Her beast was unfazed. The creature always had a soft spot for Morgan, even though they both knew what kind of man he really was.
Gripping the straps of her backpack, she turned back to the trail ahead of her. Blue fir trees draped elegantly over the path. Tiny creatures skittered through the undergrowth. She could hear their panicked breathing when they recognized her as the predator she was. Her long legs burned with the effort as she climbed a steep and rocky path.
Soon, she was at the top of a small peak. The rocky outcropping treated her to a view of the Den. The tiny, unassuming town was a snapshot out of days past. Mom and Pop shops thrived. Little school-houses rang old, metal bells to announce the beginning of the school day. The only thing missing were the narrow steeples of churches.
Bear shifters had no need for religion. They were creatures of nature.
Though, they’d had some changed shifters bring their beliefs to the Den. The beliefs had held the new shifters together as they learned to control their new beasts. Callie never quite understood, but she’d gladly helped build a couple small chapels in town to help the new shifters.
This was the furthest Callie had ever been from the Den. Her family had roots here that ran deep, deeper than any shifter she knew. There had been a time when she thought of leaving. Her heart had been tied up, attached to a man that she would now rather forget.
Since then, she’d worked in the day cares and hospitals in town. Callie’s mission was to welcome new cubs into the world. She helped shelter them from the human world outside the Alaskan mountains.
“It looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” Aimee chirped. She grinned wide at the scene that sprawled below them, her eyes darting over every little detail. “You should tell your dad that it needs a covered bridge. That would really set the scene.”
Callie scoffed. “This isn’t a tourist town.”
Aimee let out a sound of disappointment. “It was just a suggestion.”
Her friend spun on her heel and stomped down the hill. Callie wanted to reach out and apologize, but a part of her didn’t think what she’d said required an apology. The Den was hidden for a reason. It was a safe haven for bear shifters to be bear shifters. To her, it was a holy place.
She shuddered at the thought of human feet trampling over everything she loved, tossing their paper latte cups out windows as they raced in and out of town. Humans were a plague on nature. Sometimes, even the changed shifters were just as bad. It took them a long time to unlearn their toxic behaviors.
The only human she’d ever been able to suffer was her mother. The Native American woman had a deep respect for her surroundings, one that she passed on to her only daughter.
Callie took a moment to breathe deep, savoring the cool and fresh air, when the phone in her backpack vibrated again. This time, she whipped it out, slapped the green button, and growled into the microphone.
“Glad to hear that your hike is going well,” her father said. She could hear the humor in his voice.
“I’m sorry. I thought it was someone else.” Probably because she hadn’t spared the time to check the number on her screen before she growled. “What’s going on?”
“It seems that there are a couple of new bear shifters and one on the way. I’d like you to visit them to make sure the shifters responsible are behaving themselves and bring the pregnant one back to the Den.”
Callie snorted. If there were two new shifters and one was pregnant, it didn’t sound like anyone was behaving. She thought back to Morgan’s phone call, and her stomach sank all over again.
“Does this have anything to do with Morgan’s crew?”
Her father made a noise on the other end that she couldn’t decipher. It was somewhere between displeasure and discomfort. She knew her father still hated Morgan for what the bear shifter did to his only daughter, but she didn’t think he felt that strongly.
“It does. I think the pregnant shifter is his cousin’s mate.”
Callie wasn’t surprised that Theodore had a kid on the way already. She ran her hand over her face. “He isn’t going to want to let his mate far from him if she’s pregnant. Are you sure you want that buffoon back at the Den?”
“Just because the previous generations failed him doesn’t mean we can allow him to corrupt the next generation.”
She sighed. Why her? She’d hoped to keep at least a hundred miles between her and Morgan at all times.
“I trust you,” her father said, answering her unspoken question. “You’ll do what’s right.”
Callie groaned. “Alright. But, I’m taking Aimee with me.”
Her father didn’t sound very happy about that, but he let it slide. Aimee might not be a bear shifter, but she was a shifter, and that made her more trustworthy than a human.
Morgan had tried for years to contact his mate. No matter what he tried, she ignored him. At least he knew she was alive and well. The thought comforted his beast. The creature inside him was oddly calm compared to some of the others. Even though Morgan’s mate was in another state, hating him for reasons he didn’t understand, the thought of her always calmed him.
Someday, he told himself. Someday, he would convince her to love him again.
Their love had been brief and fleeting in their teenage years, when he and the others still lived at the Den. Morgan hadn’t been able to believe his luck, finding his mate at such an early age. She’d been his best friend as a child and his mate as a young man. Then, she turned on him. She screamed at him that it was over and that he needed to leave.
He’d done as she asked, even though he hadn’t understood what happened to corrupt their love. He took his cousin and two others with him, gaining the ornery Orion a few years later as if the Den only sent the lost and broken to them.
“What did she say?” Dominic asked, reaching for his hard hat.
“It went about as well as you might think. She hung up on me as soon as I answered.”
Dominic nodded. “It would have been nice to have Callie visit. She would have been able to deal with Boomer. Do you think they’ll send one of the old bear shifter midwives? The lady I remember had a beard.”
“Oh, I remember the bearded bear now. She was not pleasant.”
They both sighed, fearing what was to come now that Emmy was pregnant. They all knew what happened to young bear shifters and their mothers. No one liked it, but it was tradition. Emmy would have the child at the Den and then they would ship her back to Boomer while they raised the child.
It was an old tradition, one that was outdated by a hundred years. On the worksite below, Boomer was already stomping around. His motions were jerky, filled with nervous ire. He knew what was coming. Morgan and Dom wondered if Boomer would fight it. If he did, they would all stand beside him.
No matter what that meant for the rest of them.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see who they send.” Morgan’s stomach was a nest of anxious butterflies.
A part of him still hoped they would send Callie, though he knew she would never voluntarily come anywhere near him. It was clear she wanted nothing to do with him, though it would have been nice to see her again. All he wanted to know was that she was happy.
Boomer was stomping up the hill toward them. His hand was covered in blood, though neither man could see a wound. Their fellow shifter avoided eye contact as he let himself into the first-aid trailer. Dominic shook his head and Morgan laughed as the trailer started to shake.
One of these days, it was going to come off its temporary foundation and rocket down the mountain.
Morgan couldn’t help the bit of jealousy that twisted him. It wrung him out and made him turn away from his family. In a matter of months, both Boomer and Reid had found mates. While the beginning of their relationships had been rocky due to outside forces, both now had the love of a woman waiting for them.
The luck he once thought he’d had was gone. In its place was the knowledge that he’d never have what Reid and Boomer had. No woman would smile up at him when he came near. He would never hear the flutter of her laughter again.
“I’ll go finish Boomer’s work. I need to break something.” Morgan left his friend to go lift logs into the Loader, hoping the physical labor would drown the loneliness warping his mind.